Rhythms and songs of the forest and savannah

Sikilza means ‘Listen’ in Kiswahili. The recordings on this CD all convey a strong characteristic of the people of Eastern Congo: their desire to be heard. These recordings may appear to be simply a compilation of traditional music. In reality they all show and express the popular, anti-authority and creative character of this music. This is much more than simply tradition recalling ancient and bygone times. The people and the music have been chosen to show the diversity and the richness of the popular music of this region of Congo, an area that is too often associated only with conflict between human populations. In reality, farmers, pastoralists and hunter-gatherers from this region have always interacted to produce an original and diverse culture. Furthermore, these people integrated and reinterpreted foreign musical elements brought to them via the radio and other means of communication. This selection is just one choice among many other possibilities. However, we have tried to select popular music that is not yet well known and represents some of the main traditions of the region.
Ignorance, incomprehension and what has to be called a kind of musical deafness (or racism?) towards these peoples, who are also far from the commercial networks and their induced fashions, have kept these cultures in the fixed and narrow frame of so-called folklore music.

The reality is however very different. Young Congolese have succeeded in making the traditional repertories evolve by adapting musical instruments to produce the more modern sound they were looking for. It is through songs that they contest and criticize the traditions. This is also the way that all generations use to express their despair and their criticism of the world around them. The peoples from Eastern Congo have suffered political upheaval and the convulsions of war for many years. The civil war that has raged in the region since the middle of the nineties has devastated the human landscape in this part of Congo. The richness, the originality and the diversity of the music is probably one the most important patrimonies of this region. When one listens to it one hears the voice of peoples who survive in the chaos of a world with a global economy in which an ounce of gold is worth more than a human life.

The Zande live in an immense territory in Northern Congo, on the border with Sudan and the Republic of Central Africa. One of the most important social institutions of this society is the end of mourning. It is a time of dancing and making music, almost always accompanied by xylophones of which the Zande are expert players. It is also the moment when the young and the less young can openly criticize authority. The
likembe, a musical instrument found all  over the Congo, which is played by pinching its keys, is also used in more intimate repertories that deal with life’s difficulties.

The Lugbara live in areas straddling the borders of Congo and Uganda. One of their favorite musical instruments is the harp
Adungu. Groups of youngsters use it to play dance music in bars where there is no electricity. The musical themes are inspired by music heard on the radio and the songs are often sharply critical of the traditions. One of the most criticized is the institution of the dowry, which demands a number of cattle that the young man and his family often find it impossible to obtain.

The Logo play the lyre at their beer drinking feasts. The instrument is common in East Africa but rare in Congo. The repertory has a traditional basis but has been adapted to produce sung or instrumental music for feasts where mainly young people gather.

The music of the Mangbele is part in the musical world of the Mangbetu. The repertory played by the young has however evolved, following the desire for more modern entertainment music. The instrument most frequently used in this context is the likembe whose range and chords have been extended. The instrument’s natural sonority, which gives a slight vibrato effect when moved during playing, has also been amplified to sound like the electric guitars of city musicians who use a lot of echo to obtain the characteristic sound of modern Congolese music.

The Malele live in the middle of a diamond mining area. The recording on this CD was made just before the discovery of the mines. At that time, to play music that sounded modern, young people made guitars with planks of wood from crates and clothes-line. The aim was to imitate the songs heard on transistor radios that were broadcasting groups from Kinshasa. This music is astonishing because it is played on a 5-stringed instrument (that gives the traditional scale) and because the singer is a young Asua Pygmy who lived in a Malele village. 

The Asua Pygmies are the least known of this region of Congo. However their songs have original characteristics that show that they have been able to integrate their music with that of their Bantu, Ubanguians and Sudanese neighbors. The Kango continue to play an old repertory of whistle music that can be found throughout the whole North Eastern region of Congo. These people suffered, probably more than others, from all kinds of prejudice. Their way of life and their customs are different from those of most groups in the region. Often treated as marginal, they are ignored by the authorities and badly treated by the armies and soldiers of all kinds. Yet it is worth remembering that the vocal polyphonies of the Efe and other Pygmies of the Ituri are among the most sophisticated musical objects ever produced by mankind.

The life of people in the region has been greatly modified by recent wars and political events. Moreover, the creation of a wildlife reserve aimed at protecting okapi could have important consequences for the way of life of groups like the Ndaaka. These people continue to hunt and to trap the spirits of animals with their musical bows and a possible ban on hunting would cause this repertory to vanish.

The Havu and Shi territory, on the shores of lake Kivu, served as a camp for Rwandan refugees after the French army ‘opération turquoise’ in 1994. The music from this region is part of the great lakes civilization of Central Africa. Havu and Shi always played satirical repertories and popular songs on their Lulanga zithers. Recently this repertory has shifted to and been developed on guitars.

CD tracks

  1. Entertainment music. Havu (Katana village)
    Satirical song played in the old auto-panagyric style of poetry. The musician makes fun of vain people. 

  2. Entertainment music. Kango (Atanga)
    Each musician plays one instrument that produces one note.
    The whole gives this hiccupped polyphony. This entertainment music is played by a group of Kango Pygmies. 

  3. Entertainment music, Shi (Katana)
    This song, accompanied by a guitar, is played in a style similar to the traditional zither tunes. The lyrics combine traditional and contemporary themes about everyday life

  4. Entertainment music, Zande (Dungu)
    Crooks' satire. 

  5. Entertainment music. Havu (Katana)
    This song is a long chronicle of recent and ancient events that took place in the region of Katana.. 

  6. Music for the end of the mourning. Zande (Dungu)
    Song in honor of the Nagandu ancestors

  7. Entertainment music. Lugbara (Aru)
    Song in which youngsters criticize the traditional dowry that often prevents them from marrying.

  8. Entertainment music. Mangbele (Kumbolu)
    The lyrics of this song, played in a very popular style by young people, evoke aspects of their everyday life.

  9. Entertainment music. Malele (Niapu)
    Music that seeks to imitate tunes played by Kinshasa groups youngsters hear on the radio

  10. Entertainment music. Logo (Makoro)
    Drinking song, parodying life as a couple and other aspects of village life.

  11. Polyphonic song. Asua (Medje).
    Polyphonic entertainment song played for the end of a successful hunt. Women accompany themselves by clapping their hands and men by banging together wooden sticks

  12. Music to trap the spirits of wild animals. Ndaaka (Bavanekengele)
    Music played before a hunt. The musician calls the spirits of the animals to be hunted. The way of playing the mouth bow imitates the lyrics of the song intended to trap the spirits of the animals.